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The Persistence of Carl Sagan’s Message

Now and again I am gripped by this nagging suspicion that maybe Carl Sagan was overrated as a science communicator, and that perhaps my memories of him are false memories generated by a halo effect. Such suspicions are often attended by this feeling that his message would, by now, be awkwardly dated if not silly and shortsighted in the context of the twenty-first century. Or maybe, like many thinkers I once held in high regard, I have already grown out of my admiration for him.

During such times, I check the evidence that is Sagan’s considerable body of work in science popularization. After all, Sagan himself always stressed the value of evidence. Part of my methodology involves going to YouTube. There I look up Carl Sagan’s reflections on the Pale Blue Dot. I play the video. “From this distant vantage point, the Earth may not seem of any particular interest,” begins Sagan’s sonorous voice, referring to the vast distance from which the photo of the Earth was taken. “But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us,” he continues, his cadence impeccable, his perspective both mesmerizing and undeniable, his passion nothing short of contagious. By the time the video ends, my eyes are sopping with tears. This happens every single time.

A photograph of the Earth taken by Voyager 1 from the outer Solar System, famously known as the 'Pale Blue Dot'. It was taken on the request of Carl Sagan, who was part of the team working on the Voyager missions.

A photograph of the Earth taken by Voyager 1 from the outer Solar System, famously known as the ‘Pale Blue Dot’. It was taken at the request of Carl Sagan, who was part of the team working on the Voyager missions. [Photo credit: NASA, Voyager Mission]

It was on Carl Sagan’s request that the Voyager 1 space probe took the famous Pale Blue Dot image from across the vastness of interplanetary space. Being both an astronomer and a science communicator, he knew right away that it was an opportunity for him to share with others, in the form of an actual photograph, his sense of cosmic perspective.

Even to this day, his reflections on the photograph have not lost one iota of their force. If anything, they are more significant today than ever. Observe, for instance, the relevance of the following lines to the currents state of world affairs: “Think of all the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner.” Note how carefully chosen the words are. They aren’t just about humans, they are about the inhabitants of the pixel. All of them. To give another example, consider how the following lines gain added significance in the light of our current understanding of climate change: “The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand.”

The photograph known as the "Wave to Saturn" or "Pale Blue Dot 2.1". It was taken by the Cassini space probe in 2013. "Pale Blue Dot 2.0" was also taken by Cassini in 2006. [Photo credit: NASA]

The photograph known as the “Wave at Saturn” or “Pale Blue Dot 2.1”. The blue dot near the middle is the Earth. It was taken by the Cassini space probe in 2013. “Pale Blue Dot 2.0” was taken also by Cassini in 2006. [Photo credit: NASA]

It was this keen understanding of the problems we face as a global civilization and the role science plays in solving them that made Carl Sagan’s approach to science popularization unique, poignant, and relevant. The link between promoting science and empowering people was central to why he wanted people to understand. In an interview with Charlie Rose months before his death, he said, “We live in an age based on science and technology with formidable technological powers… And if we don’t understand it — and by ‘we’ I mean we the general public — if it’s something that [makes us say], ‘Oh I’m not good at that, I don’t know anything about it,’ then who is making all the decisions about science and technology that are going to determine what kind of future our children live in?”

Carl Sagan understood that democracy and science were intimately intertwined, that true democracy was not possible if the citizens are ignorant, and that science required an environment of independent inquiry that is difficult to maintain outside a free society. Relating his ideas to that of Thomas Jefferson, he said, “It wasn’t enough… to enshrine some rights in our Constitution or Bill of Rights. The people [have] to be educated and they [have] to practice their skepticism and their education, otherwise we don’t run the government, the government runs us.”

Sagan shown in an interview with Charlie Rose months before Sagan's death. [Photo credit: PBS]

Months before his death, Sagan was interviewed by Charlie Rose. In the interview, Sagan summarized the importance of scientific literacy in democratic societies. [Photo credit: PBS]

In his passionate popularization of science, Sagan inevitably clashed with pseudoscience and fundamentalist religion. This clash made him realize that the most important things to impart were not what we know, but the methods we used to arrive at knowledge. He writes in The Demon-Haunted World, “If we teach only the findings and products of science, no matter how useful and even inspiring they may be, without communicating its critical method, how can the average person possibly distinguish science from pseudoscience? Both then are present as unsupported assertions.” A few paragraphs forward, he writes, “It is a supreme challenge for the popularizer of science to make clear the actual, tortuous history of its great discoveries and the misapprehensions and occasional stubborn refusal by its practitioners to change course… It is enormously easier to present in an appealing way the wisdom distilled from centuries of patient and collective interrogation of nature than to detail the messy distillation apparatus. The methods of science, as stodgy and grumpy as they may seem, are far more important than the findings of science.”

But his brand of skepticism was not just directed toward charlatans, it was directed toward human frailty in general. “Perhaps the sharpest distinction between science and pseudoscience is that science has a far keener appreciation of human imperfections and fallibility than does pseudoscience, or inerrant revelation,” he noted. In the last interview with Charlie Rose he said, “Science is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking, a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility.”

[Photo credit: izquotes.com]

[Photo credit: izquotes.com]

The staying power of Sagan’s perspective rests on the fact that it was in equal measure all too human and completely cosmic. The key to this union of the grand and the humble, the timeless and the timely, can be found in the first episode of his world-famous PBS series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, where he said, “The cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Sagan made no distinction between his passion for the universe and his love for humanity. To him, they were the same thing. This is why his message is still relevant to us today, and why his personal voyage still has a lot to teach us.

Have an enlightening Carl Sagan Day!

[Photo credit: Skeptic Magazine]

[Photo credit: Skeptic Magazine]

Posted in Science1 Comment

Why Believing Without Demanding Proof is Close-Mindedness

One common joke among skeptics goes as follows: “Don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out.” Not only do I find this joke unfunny, I also find it pointless. If a person wants to take openness to new ideas to its logical conclusion, she will not end up being gullible or credulous. Rather, she will be a skeptic. True open-mindedness is not the same as accepting assertions without critical consideration. In fact, believing claims without being critical of them results in having a closed mind.

To see this, consider the following example. Suppose a friend of yours earnestly claims that he is being haunted by ghosts in his house. He tells you that he hears whispers inside his house even when he is alone and no television is turned on. During some nights, he hears cries or wails in the basement, even when nobody is there. He even catches glimpses of these ghosts walking around in the small hours of the morning. Worst of all, they sometimes appear behind him when he is looking at himself in the mirror, but the moment he turns around to face the ghost, it has already disappeared.

If you uncritically accept this friend’s allegations without demanding clearer evidence other than his vague anecdotes, you are closing your mind from all other possible hypotheses. You are rejecting many other possible explanations without giving them due consideration. You are being close-minded. By hastily jumping into the conclusion that he is being haunted without systematically investigating the causes of his experiences, your friend is being close-minded too. He has exhibited prejudice against the alternative hypotheses without giving them the deliberation they deserve. That is the definition of having a closed mind.

If you are open to all ideas, you should consider false perceptions such as pareidolia as a more plausible explanation for many supposed ghost sightings. [Photo credit: Pedro Luis Gomez Barrondo]

If you open your mind to competing ideas, you will fairly consider other explanations. One explanation for most ghost sightings is the phenomenon of pareidolia. [Photo credit: Pedro Luis Gomez Barrondo]

Consider the alternate explanations for your friend’s experiences. First off, he may be lying. History is replete with examples of people who claim special access to the spirit world, but who turned out to be charlatans. But suppose he is not lying. Suppose he has really experienced all the things described above. Well, he might be suffering from episodes of delusion. Perhaps some haughty neighbors are playing tricks on him. Or maybe an unusual but natural phenomenon is taking place in his house, one that is amazing and surreal but that does not require supernatural explanations. In fact, the phenomenon going on in his house, or possibly in his mind, might be yet unknown to scientists. His experiences might lead to new discoveries once close investigation has been done. True open-mindedness requires you to consider all these plausible scenarios and assess their likelihood in light of the evidence. In the absence of evidence, open-mindedness also requires you to withhold judgment.

But the cases where we truly lack evidence are very few. When it comes to people’s behavior, for example, we have plenty of evidence for errors in perception, credulity, or even fraud. The case of people claiming to be haunted is well-known and well-documented. There is plenty of evidence showing that people suffering from delusions sometimes claim to be tormented by spirits; treating the mental illness at the root of these delusions often make the “spirits” go away. There is plenty of evidence that elaborate pranks can be sometimes played by people on their neighbors and friends; I myself can relate to the pleasure of giving a friend a harmless fright. Furthermore, there are also a lot of natural phenomena that, when experienced, gives one a sense of the surreal and supernatural. Imagine seeing a Pepper’s Ghost illusion, or being victim to a case of pareidolia, or seeing a St. Elmo’s fire atop a mast near one’s backyard. Some buildings have acoustics that lead to the propagation of voices coming from far, far away. If you are in such a building, you can hear the murmurs of unseen speakers. If a person unfamiliar with scientific thinking experienced any of these or similar phenomena, it is easy to see why he would be tempted would jump to a supernatural explanation. A close inspection of these phenomena, however, does not reveal the supernatural, but only the super in what is natural.

It is a shame that so many people have the mindset that nature is dull and that any extraordinary experience can only be attributed to supernatural causes. This is lamentable because the lessons of our discoveries in science tell us otherwise. Science has shown that, contrary to our intuitions, nature is extraordinary and subtle, its workings no less than mind-blowing. Hastily supplying supernatural explanations for one’s extraordinary experiences is closing one’s mind to the beauty of the world. The lack of critical thinking leads to a close-mindedness that is blinding.

If you content yourself with a lazy explanation for an  astounding experience, you will lose a golden opportunity to learn something new about the world and the human mind.

If you content yourself with a lazy explanation for an astounding experience, you will miss a golden opportunity to learn something new about the world and the human mind. [Photo credit: chelanschool.org]

Does having an open mind mean treating all ideas as if they were all equally valid? Are skeptics being close-minded when they reject some explanations in favor of others? These and similar questions arise from the confusion between treating ideas equally and treating them fairly. Treating an idea fairly means giving it consideration by assessing its merit based on the evidence. If you treat ideas fairly, you will quickly discover that most of them are baloney and only a few are meritorious. Being open-minded requires you to treat ideas fairly, not equally. Believing in competing and often logically incompatible views of the world is close-mindedness; an open mind admits valid evidence and logic. Truly open-minded people know that not all ideas are created equal.

Worse than closing one’s mind to many possibilities, the lack of critical thinking leads to the practice of placing too much confidence on insufficient and flimsily evidence that have undergone very little examination. In short, not thinking critically leads to intellectual laziness and arrogance. Advocates of woo and the paranormal often accuse skeptics of being arrogant. What these fans of the supernatural fail to realize is that skepticism is not just a safeguard against being fooled by others. Skepticism is first of all a safeguard against being fooled by oneself. As the physicist Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you shouldn’t fool yourself, and that you’re the easiest person to fool.” This realization is at the heart of skepticism. It is what make skeptics cautious and fastidious. It is what gives them intellectual humility. In the end, critical thinking is not just the direct implication of true open-mindedness, it is also the product of true intellectual humility.

Posted in Philosophy, Science0 Comments

An Organic Tale of a Chemical Nature

The Power of Words

Words are powerful. Consider, for instance, the fact that right now you are staring at a grid of pixels on a computer screen and somehow because of this you hear a voice — my writer’s voice — inside your head. What more, through this voice you hear words that, as if by magic, conjure images, evoke emotions, or transport you across time and space. By a careful choice of words I can gain a certain degree of control over your mind, and consequently your behavior.

Because of their power, words must be used with care. To abuse words is to endanger people. This fact, though true in general, is most acutely felt in the case of scientific terms.

Take, for instance, the word ‘chemical’. Does it describe something dangerous or beneficial? Something to be avoided, perhaps? More than a few TV commercials boast the absence of chemicals in a product, and our supermarkets are filled with merchandise claiming to be “chemical-free.” What do these commercials and product labels mean, if they mean anything at all?

This ad for SunFX, a brand of spray on tan, is just one of many disavowing the use of chemicals. Does this claim make sense? [Photo credit: mysunfx.com]

Sometime ago, after performing a science demonstration for a general audience, I was approached by a girl of about 6 years who called my attention by tugging at the bottom of my lab coat and calling me, “Mr. Scientist.” When I finally looked down at the little girl’s quizzical face, she said, “Mr. scientist, Mr. scientist, what is a chemical?” The question gave me pause. I had to put down the tray of glassware I was holding (which contained several chemicals) and sat down. I couldn’t have given her wonderfully deep question justice by merely blurting out a textbook definition. Neither would she have been satisfied with the meaningless answer, “Oh, everything is made of chemicals.” Light and sound aren’t composed of atoms, are they chemicals too? Are space and time chemicals? Is dark matter composed of chemicals? Her question deserved nothing less than a story in reply.


The word ‘chemical’, like many scientific terms, is a shorthand for a story of discovery. Every time we refer to something as being a chemical, or of a research as part of chemistry, we are referring to this story — we are making reference to a narrative. Like all stories of discovery, it is a rich and intriguing detective story where the mystery to be solved is nature’s behavior and where the detectives are the scientists. In telling this story, we also learn about related and likewise oft-used words like ‘organic’ and ‘natural’, words that, like ‘chemical’, are often used to appeal to people’s emotions but not to their reason.

What are the advantages of products that are labelled organic? What does it take for something to be “100% natural”?


The (Distilled) Story of Chemistry

The story started with people asking what everything is made of. Are all the various things around us made of different stuff, or are they all made of the same stuff arranged differently? How many different kinds of basic stuff are there?


When this story began people let their imaginations run wild. “Everything’s made of water,” asserted Thales. “Nope, it’s all fire,” replied Heraclitus. “Atoms and the void, is what I say,” retorted Democritus. “My money’s on earth, air, fire, and water,” declared Aristotle. “Oh, and also ether,” he added. Most of these early thinkers scarcely bothered to check if their guess was the correct one.

Aristotle's five elements in their nested spheres: earth, water, wind, fire, and ether.

Aristotle’s five elements in their nested spheres: earth, water, wind, fire, and ether.


Sometime later, however, people started to earnestly and systematically burn, boil, pulverize, and purify every piece of ore they could get their hands on. In the hopes of one day finding a way to change common metals to gold or extract the elixir of life, these investigators carefully wrote down their methods and observations, trying to find patterns behind it all. In detective stories, this is the part when the detectives pin the many collected clues onto a board, connect related clues via strings, and stare at the constellation of facts wishing to discover the secret symmetry behind it all. These mortar-and-pestle-wielding detectives were called alchemists, a word which can be traced to the Greek word ‘khemia’ or the”art of transmuting metals”. Little by little the alchemists, who were later succeeded by people who called themselves ‘chemists’, saw a pattern emerging, a pattern suggesting that while most things are made of a mixture of stuff, some are made of just one kind in pure form. They called the latter group ‘elements’. The rules that govern the interactions of the elements came to be known as chemistry, and the products of these elements mixing and matching came to be called chemicals. (And oh, they also finally got the hint that you can’t turn lead into gold through chemical means, but by that time they found use for their knowledge in distilling good whiskey, and that more than made up for it.) After some false leads involving non-existent substances like “phlogiston”, the chemists eventually came up with the Table of Elements tabulating all the basic stuff that make up tables, chairs, planets, and stars.

 

The Essence of the Organic

But what about plants and people? What about animals and those unseen things called “germs” that make folks sick? Clearly they must be made of different stuff, aren’t they? After all, trees grow, fruits rot, animals make other animals, and things that live eventually cease to be alive. Dead matter like mineral ores, alkaline solutions, and hazy vapors did none of these things. Because of the striking difference between rock and rabbit, early detectives thought that living organisms were made of some special, life-giving stuff — organic matter, they called it (from the Greek ‘organikos’, meaning “relating to an organ or instrument”). And because the ‘vital force’ that moves a cheetah during a chase seems so different from the mundane forces of the elements that move pebbles around,investigators thought the processes of life were fundamentally different from those undergone by lifeless chemicals. (The word vital comes from the Latin ‘vita’, meaning life.) If you look at the miracle of life with eyes unaided by our current knowledge, as when you compare a rose in bloom with a crystal of rose quartz, it’s easy to relate with this mistake in understanding. But given how our modern life depends on the most recent scientific insights, it is important that we progress from this mistake.

Rose quartz

At a cursory glance, it is hard to believe that a rose quartz and a rose flower are made of the same kinds of stuff, only in different proportions. (Rose flowers have lots of carbon, quartz crystals have lots of silicon.)

 

What we would call living matter, it is now known, is made of stuff that can be found in the Table of Elements. Recall that these elements were discovered by people who dealt with so-called dead matter. For example carbon, which there’s a lot of in living things, is also what makes up diamonds, and the oxygen that so confused many chemists into thinking about phlogiston is just the pure form of the oxygen found in sugars and many other so-called organic molecules. What more, the rules that govern the interactions of the elements in flasks and test tubes are the same rules that hold inside cells and working organs — life is just chemistry. However, despite the fundamental similarity between dead matter and living matter, the differences are striking and important. The chemistry of life is mesmerizing; it’s complex and delicate — one might say that life is chemistry on acid. All this is made possible by the chemical properties of the element carbon, an element which can form the backbone of compounds as simple as ethanol and as complex as DNA. For this reason, we stuck with the original terminology ‘organic’. But because we know better, we now call the study of organic substances ‘organic chemistry’.

The atoms of elements (atoms are the basic units of a chemical element) can be promiscuous, but none are more promiscuous than the orgy-loving carbon atoms.

 

Organic substances are chemicals. The food we eat, the drugs we take, and we ourselves are composed of these chemicals. The processes that move our muscles and power our thoughts are chemical processes. It is therefore absurd to avoid chemicals and dishonest to claim that a pharmaceutical product, a product that has benefited from great advances in chemistry, contains “no chemicals”.

We continue to use the words organic and inorganic out of convenience because they signify concepts that are helpful in organizing our world. But a lot of important properties easily cross this divide of convenience. For example, many organic substances are poisonous or toxic, and a lot of inorganic ones, like water and table salt, are needed by living things. 

In agriculture, the word organic is often used to describe a certain group of food and farming methods that involve audit trails to ensure that certain standards are met in animal welfare, agricultural drug use, the application of biotechnology, corporate transparency (or more often the lack thereof), ecological impact, and many more. The problem with this use of the word organic is that it has little to do with the scientific meaning of the term. More often than not, people use the word ‘organic’ to invoke emotion without invoking much thought. True, some chemicals used in industrial farming might be harmful to the environment and the health of consumers, and it is best if we replace them with chemicals that work just as well and that have fewer negative side effects, but their being chemically organic or inorganic has little to do with it. The same can be said about their being natural or unnatural.

The USDA’s requirements for obtaining the label ‘organic’ vs common practices in products with the label ‘natural’. [Pic credit: stonyfield.com]

 

Natural Tendencies

When I’m in the supermarket, I am always amused to see so many products claiming to be “all natural” while being wrapped or contained in plastic and placed on a refrigerator in an air-conditioned, artificially-lit department store. But what about that seedless banana that looks so different from its wild counterpart? Does growing this product of generations of human cultivation without using pesticides and fertilizers make it “all natural”?

The word ‘natural’ is tricky because it means a handful of very different things. The word can be traced to the Latin ‘natura’, meaning birth in the sense of “having a certain status by birth”. It is natural, for example, for most people to want to eat. It is a tendency that people have since they were born. It is not natural, however, to want to listen to obscure music. Babies don’t have an inclination to visit pitchfork.com. Things like taste in music are what we describe as ‘cultural’, a word that can be traced to the Latin ‘cultura’, meaning ’tillage’. Something cultural is something that is cultivated. (Does this mean that anything cultivated, like nearly all plant products we currently consume, are not natural? In this sense, yes.)

The word ‘natural’, however, was for hundreds of years also used to refer to the collective phenomenon of the physical world outside the realm of human control. On the one hand was nature with its trees, animals, mountains, clouds, and rain, and on the other were humans with their cities, governments, philosophies, culture, and Stanley Kubrick films. A line was drawn between what was natural and what was ‘artificial’ (from the Latin ‘artificium’ meaning handicraft). Using this sense of the word ‘natural’, the predecessors of scientists called themselves ‘natural philosophers’ — people who love to reason about things that happen outside the human sphere.

The more these natural philosophers learned about nature, however, the more they noticed that the dichotomy between the natural world and the human world is at best arbitrary and at worst untenable. Not only are we made of the same stuff that make up things that were considered natural, we are governed by the very same “laws of nature”. Humans are part of nature, there is no way out of it. (After all, what is outside nature? That is, what is supernatural? Jensen Ackles’s handsomeness, maybe?)

As with the case of the word ‘organic’, we continue to use the words ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ because they are convenient shorthands. When we say a chemical “exists in nature”, we mean that it would exist even without humans manufacturing it. When we say a phenomenon is natural, we mean that it would happen even without humans around making it happen. As with ‘organic’, the main problem with ‘natural’ is not its uselessness, but the emotional undertones that people incorrectly attach to it. The word ‘natural’ is very often used as an assurance of superior quality. It is not. Parasites and pests are natural. Poisonous fruits and plant toxins are natural. Many diseases are natural. Heck, death is natural. Compare the above natural things with the following, all of which are artificial: lifespans that are relatively long and comfortable, low infant mortality rate, homes made cozy by electricity, medicine, anesthesia, distilled water, contact lenses, pet animals, YouTube, and Lena Headey’s blond hair in Game of Thrones. While one can argue that at least one of these is not good, the rest are great. Who can imagine life without modern medicine? Or YouTube?

Science and Stories

‘Natural’ does not mean better nor ‘artificial’ worse. ‘Organic’ does not mean beneficial nor ‘chemical’ harmful. These words have rich and complex histories, and we do these histories a great injustice by using the words that stand for them simplistically. Worse, by forgetting the stories behind these words, we not only forget all the amazing men and women who have labored to discover the workings of the world, we endanger ourselves by failing to grasp the nuances of their meaning.

Needless to say I did not tell all of these things to the little girl who asked me about chemicals. I told her a story that was more brief and less pretentious than the one above. She seemed to enjoyed it. At the end of the story, the little girl asked me one last question. She said, “So scientists are story tellers too?” “Yes,” I said, “Scientists are story tellers. But most of all, they are story makers.”

Posted in Education, Science3 Comments

The World Through A Glass Darkly

[This piece is the first installation in a series on scientific reasoning and skepticism.]

Look at the picture below. Which part of the block looks darker, the one on top or the one on the bottom?

Shading optical illusion

Actually, they’re exactly the same color. You can see this if you cover the middle portion of the grey object using your index finger. Now study the next picture below and examine the tiles labeled A and B. What is the color of tile A? How about tile B?

1079537_10203254647312773_1286954857_n

What if I tell you that tiles A and B have the same color? If you don’t believe me (and it’s right that you don’t, because wtf they’re not the same color), save this picture and examine it using appropriate software. You can also print the picture on paper, cut out the tiles in question, and compare their colors side by side.

It is often said that we see the world through a glass darkly. What this means is our perception of the world is not perfect but rather goes through a flawed filter, the proverbial darkened glass. In reality, our perception of the world is not merely distorted by physical obstructions like dark glasses; our very minds are riddled with cognitive biases that are at the very core of how we perceive the universe. The dark glass we see the world through is part of who we are. It is us.

Why do we see tiles A and B above as having different colors? Before we answer that question, take a look at the picture below.

Shaded circles 1

Because of the shading, the circles appear three-dimensional. The fact that we perceive depth just because of shading is already interesting. Even more interesting is the fact that to nearly everyone, the same group of circles appear to bulge out (they are “eggs”) and the same group appear to cave in (they are “cavities”). Which of the circles look like eggs and which look like cavities? Assuming all of you who read this are humans, most of you will see the circles on the left as the eggs and the circles on the right as the cavities. The left portion of the picture looks like a flat surface with several bumps while the right portion reminds us of a golf ball’s surface.

It’s also interesting to note that it’s difficult to see it the other way around. Go ahead, try it. Imagine the circles on the left as cavities and those on the right as eggs. (Personally, I find the former more difficult to do than the latter.)

Scientists think our tendency to see the circles on the left as the convex eggs is due to our mind’s innate assumption that light always comes from above. For the left circles to be cavities, light would have to come from underneath. Our brains seem to find this latter scenario unlikely. In fact, our mind’s assumption that light always comes from above is so strong that the convex eggs pop out from among the cavities in the picture below.

Shaded circles 2

If you invert the picture above, the circles would exchange roles; the ones that used to be cavities will become the eggs and vice versa. I encourage you to give it a try. You can view the page with your head upside down or, if you’re reading this on a laptop or a tablet, try flipping your device and see the eggs become cavities.

Once you or your gadget is upright again, look at the picture below.

Shaded circles 3

Like last time, you will see eggs and cavities, but this time it’s easy to imagine either group as the eggs. Unlike last time, you can easily shift from the point of view that the upper circles are eggs to the view that the lower circles are the eggs. Our minds can easily imagine a scenario where light comes from the left to the scenario where light comes from the right.

Since our brains are products of our evolutionary history, so are our minds. We are descendants of creatures who had minds that allowed them to survive their world long enough to pass on their genes, and in their world light usually came from the Sun. In the sky, the Sun can be found to one’s right, one’s left, or above, but never below. Our minds have therefore evolved to use shortcuts that disregard the scenario of light coming from underneath.

The visual data our brain receives from our eyes are not enough to create an exact simulation of the world. From the last picture above, we see that the shading of the circles can be interpreted in at least two ways. In fact, the shading can be interpreted in many other ways; our brains just picked two among them. Another way to interpret the last image is as set of flat circles with uneven shading, but our brains disregarded that option, too. Evolution produced human minds that usually assume evenly shaded surfaces.

The mind’s problem of coming up with an accurate picture of the world given the visual data from the eyes is what engineers would call an ill-posed problem; there are more unknowns than there are given, and so no one correct solution can be derived from the given. In order for our ancestors to survive, that is, in order for them to find predators lurking nearby before they become said predator’s lunch, their minds had to evolve shortcuts that assume certain things about the world. Those assumptions may not always be true, but they are true often enough to be useful. An example of such assumption is the one that light always comes from above and never from underneath. We carry that innate assumption, that cognitive bias, with us. Today it may allow us to see eggs and cavities in a picture on a screen, but a million years ago it allowed our ancestors to avoid that lion waiting behind that stand of grass.

Let’s go back to the question of why tiles A and B in the second picture appear to have different colors even though they’re exactly the same. Because of the context, our minds are made to think that tile B is in the shadows. This, in turn, makes our visual processing system compensate for the shadow, “subtracting” the shade from the raw data to produce a final simulation that is erroneous, one in which tiles of the same color appear to have different hues. Because of a similar cognitive process, we see tiles A and B in the picture below as tiles with different shades, even though they’re exactly the same shade of grey.

checkershadow_illusion4med

Intuitively, we feel as if our brains simply interpret raw information coming from our senses. But as mentioned, the data from our sense organs are not enough to tell us everything we need to know about our surroundings. Because of this, our minds process the information from our senses, adding countless assumptions that may be false and disregarding many scenarios that are possible before creating a final simulation of the world. Our perceptions are heavily processed, extremely edited, assumption-laden finished products and not the raw information we usually think they are. Such is the dark glass through which we see the world.

How then, you ask, do we know what’s behind the dark glass? How can we see the world from outside our tinted windows? In other words, how do we know what’s really real? The answer: we turn to science.

In the next installation in this series, we will explore several more cognitive biases and then explain how the methods of science allow us to use our senses to transcend the limitations of those very senses we use, giving us glimpses of the reality that throbs and thrives on the other side of the dark glass.

Posted in Philosophy, Science0 Comments

What You Need To Know About Comet ISON

In the coming days, stargazer the world over are swooning like fanboys and fangirls over the arrival and surprising intensification of Comet ISON. In this article, we will give some of the reasons why astronomers all around the world are geeking out over the comet. We will also give some tips that will be helpful in hunting for this celebrity comet.

 

Comet ISON is virgin stuff

Comet ISON was discovered by amateur astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novitchonok using telescopes run by the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON). According to calculations of its orbit, Comet ISON is a “dynamically new” comet. This means that this visit to the inner Solar System is Comet ISON’s first, and probably also its last.

The Oort Cloud

The Oort Cloud. [Photo credit: solarsystem.nasa.gov]

This makes planetary astronomers jizz in their pants because closely studying a first time visitor to the inner Solar System is a chance to peer into the origin of the Solar System itself. Some comets, for example the famous Halley’s Comet, are periodic comets. This means they periodically shuttle between the Kuiper Belt, that region beyond Neptune’s orbit to which Pluto belongs, and the inner Solar System. Thus, periodic comets are used to getting baked by the Sun’s heat and radiation. Dynamically new comets like Comet ISON, on the other hand, are former denizens of the part of the Solar System called the Oort Cloud. The icy bodies that form the Oort Cloud are believed to be remnants from the formation of the Solar System some 4.6 billion years ago. As Comet ISON approaches the Sun, the stuff it is made of will be exposed to the Sun’s heat and radiation for the very first time ever since the Solar System’s formation, so the gas and dust it will release can tell us about what kinds of stuff there were around during the time of the planets’ formation.

 

Comet ISON will live life dangerously by grazing the Sun

Comets have very eccentric, that is elongated, elliptical orbits. This explains why they are sometimes very far from the Sun and also sometimes very near it. A class of comets called sungrazers put the mythical Icarus to shame by getting so close to the Sun that the star’s tremendous gravitational field starts to tear at them. Many of these sungrazing comets do not survive their close approach to the Sun in one piece. Of the sungrazers that bite the dust, some evaporate completely while others dive into the Sun. Others still break into several large pieces that, taken as a team, put on a spectacular show. One good example is the Comet Ikeya-Seki, a sungrazing comet that broke into three to five large pieces as it approached the Sun. Comet Ikeya-Seki is considered one of the brightest comets of the previous century, reaching a brightness that made it visible in the sky even during noon. Like Comet Ikeya-Seki (which graced the sky on 1965) and the dazzling Comet Lovejoy (which put on a show last 2011), Comet ISON is also a sungrazer.

A sungrazer comet. [Photo credit: wikimedia.org]

The sungrazing Comet Lovejoy of 2011. [Photo credit: wikimedia.org]

An orbiting body’s closest approach to the Sun is called its perihelion. Comet ISON will reach perihelion this 28th of November. During this time, it will be three times closer to the Sun than Mercury ever gets.

Sungrazer comets always put space geeks on the edge of their seats because it is so hard to predict whether a sungrazer will survive its perihelion. Many astronomers think that Comet ISON’s prospects for survival are high, but until the 28th of November the jury is still out.

Aside from glancing off the Sun, Comet ISON has one additional claim to fame of being unique among sungrazers. Most sungrazers belong to a family called the Kreutz Sungrazers, a family of dangerously living comets that have related orbits and are believed to be fragments of the same parent comet. Both Comet Ikeya-Seki and Comet Lovejoy, as well as many other famous sungrazers, belong to the Kreutz family. Comet ISON is not part of this gang.

 

Comet ISON’s story is always a cliffhanger

The closer a comet gets to the Sun the brighter it shines, reflecting the most light from the Sun when it’s near perihelion; like nearly everything in the Solar System, comets do not produce much of their light, but instead merely reflect the Sun’s. It is therefore not surprising that sungrazers have the potential to be really bright, a fact illustrated by Comet Ikeya-Seki and Comet Lovejoy.

This lead some writers to prematurely hail Comet ISON as “the comet of the century”. Early this year, it became clear that this is certainly an exaggeration. This lead some astronomers to swing to the opposite side of the optimism spectrum by predicting that Comet ISON will be a dud.

Astronomers are not new to comets that do not perform as was initially hoped. The most famous example was the Comet Kohoutek of 1973. Kohoutek was considered an astronomical PR disaster because of the hype that grew around it and the subsequent lackluster performance. Some astronomers fear that Comet ISON might be a Kohoutek Part II.

Comet Kohoutek did not live up to the hype. [Photo credit:  Photo credit: light-headed.com]

Comet Kohoutek did not live up to the hype. [Photo credit: Photo credit: light-headed.com]

Well guest what, in recent nights Comet ISON surprised everyone by suddenly brightening! It still is not as bright as previous optimistic estimates predicted, but recent developments also give the lie to the pessimists’ projections. In other words, Comet ISON is frustrating most attempts to divine its maximum brightness.

What was just said is not an indication that astronomers are clueless but rather an illustration of the amazing variety of comets; there are just so many kinds of comets that it’s very difficult to predict the behavior of the next comet based on the behavior of its predecessors. This lead the great comet hunter David H. Levy, of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 fame, to famously say, “Comets are like cats; they have tails, and they do precisely what they want.”

 

That’s all fine and good, but where in the freakin’ sky do I find this cat?

Right now there are three requirements if you want to see Comet ISON. First, you must wake up really early, around 5 in the morning. Second, you must look for the constellations Virgo and Libra. If you don’t know how to find these faint constellations, fear not. If you look toward the easter horizon at the early hours of the morning, you will be inevitably looking at these two constellations. The third requirement is a modest pair of binoculars. As of this writing, Comet ISON is already barely visible to the naked eyes on a dark sky. Using a pair of binoculars allows you to see Comet ISON as a faint smudge with a distinct tail.

The screenshot shown below is from the freeware Stellarium, a free software that you can download from this link. In the screenshot Comet ISON is indicated by its official name, C/2012 S1 (ISON). The position shown would be the spot where Comet ISON can be found at around 5:15 AM on November 23 in Manila.

Where to find Comet ISON this Saturday morning. (Screenshot courtesy of Stellarium.)

Where to find Comet ISON this Saturday morning. (Screenshot courtesy of Stellarium.)

 

As the date of perihelion approaches, Comet ISON will move farther from the location of Mars in the constellation Leo and towards the center of Virgo, to the direction of the Sun.

 

Do I need to buy expensive telescopes just to see this thing soon?

Fortunately, you don’t have to. As of this writing, Comet ISON is bright enough to been seen through a modest pair of binoculars, and its getting brighter and brighter by the hour. Many stargazers have even noted that the comet is visible via the naked eye in dark locations, and it might intensify further to be visible even in urban vantage points! If this prediction proves accurate, Comet ISON will probably put on a good show after its perihelion next week and further into December.

At any rate, Comet ISON’s claims to fame are enough to make it a comet worthy of intense observation. Whether it will be among the brighter comets of recent years or a modest naked-eye comet, Comet ISON will be among the most closely observed comets in history, and everyone is invited to join in this celebration of human curiosity.

A November 17 photo of Comet ISON taken by Austrian astrophotographer Michael Jäger. Note that the comet's beautiful and long tail is still too faint to be seen with any detail via naked-eye observation. [Photo credit: Michael Jäger]

A November 17 photo of Comet ISON taken by Austrian astrophotographer Michael Jäger. Note that the comet’s beautiful and long tail is still too faint to be seen with any detail via naked-eye observation. [Photo credit: Michael Jäger. Photo taken from nbcnews.com article on Comet ISON.]

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Microwave Storms: Full Of Hot Air

There have been conspiracy theories going around suggesting that Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan), which wreaked havoc in central Philippines last week, was man-made. This writer is not pertaining to scientifically sound speculations that Typhoon Yolanda’s unprecedented strength might be due in part to the effects of climate change, but rather to grossly outlandish claims that the super typhoon was caused by powerful electromagnetic beams that were released by human-made machines.

While these conspiracy theories should be easy to dismiss and do not deserve a lengthy rebuttal, what with the need for lending a helping hand to the survivors and all, it is unfortunate that such speculations were recently given media airtime as if they were somehow in the same league as sound scientific hypotheses. As such, a quick debunking is in order.

The following list is far from exhaustive, and is only meant as an illustration that the conspiracy theories are wrong by orders of magnitude. That said, here are some reasons why Super Typhoon Yolanda could not have been caused by microwave beams emitted by human machines.

Sorry fellow Red Alert fans, but not yet. [Image credit: forgeforums.com]

Sorry fellow Red Alert fans, but not yet. [Image credit: forgeforums.com]

1. Making clouds is like boiling tons of water.

To make a storm, you need clouds, lots of clouds. Since clouds are masses of condensed water vapor, you need to convert a lot of water (sea water, in particular) into water vapor. This is not an easy task, as water is a substance with an unusually high heat capacity and latent heat of vaporization. Translated in everyday language, this means that water is really, really hard to vaporize. Making large clouds thus requires a gargantuan amount of energy. Dozens of storms can form over warm oceans only because their source of power is no other than the Sun, which produces energy via nuclear fusion.

In science, a Fermi estimate is an order of magnitude approximation of a certain quantity. What follows is a Fermi estimate of the amount of energy required to produce a storm-sized cloud system. For a storm that rains down 300 mm of water on the central Philippines alone, this totals to approximately 56 billion tons of water. Now let us assume the temperature of seawater in the central Pacific to be evaporated is 30°C. The amount of heat required to convert 56 billion tons of seawater into water vapor, around 39 trillion kW-h of energy, is more than 500 times the energy consumed in the entire Philippines in the year 2012. In order to produce this amount of energy in a month (assuming it takes a month to create a typhoon), about 39 thousand nuclear power plants must simultaneously operate! According to the World Nuclear Association, there are only “435 operable civil nuclear power nuclear reactors around the world, with a further 72 under construction.

Peter Tyson of PBS Nova has this to say about the power of storms: “The total energy released through cloud and rain formation in an average hurricane is equivalent to 200 times the worldwide electrical generating capacity.” Just image if we are able to harness even just a fraction of this energy for the improvement of human lives.

The swirling vortex of clouds and wind that was Typhoon Haiyan. [Photo credit: theguardian.com]

The swirling vortex of clouds and wind that was Typhoon Haiyan. [Photo credit: theguardian.com]

2. Making rain is not cheap. 

Contrary to the popular joke, off-key singing is not enough to make it rain. Cloud seeding, the technique of dropping crystals into pre-existing clouds to cause rain, is expensive and difficult. Using data from the United Nations Environment Programme, the average cost of seeding is around $1.5/cu m/ha/season (this cost was in 1985). This places the Fermi estimate of the cost of seeding an entire storm at around $ 1.5 billion billion. This value is more than 140 thousand times the number of US dollars in the entire world as of July 2013, which, according to the Federal Reserve, was $ 10.5 trillion.

 

3. Storm formation involves planet-wide chains of cause and effect.

Even if you have the required amount of rain clouds, gathering all those clouds into a spinning, swirling vortex that is a storm is no easy task. Certainly, it is not a task that can be accomplished by manipulating a portion of the Earth only. The development of a typhoon might seem local at first sight, but scientists have known for decades now that storm formation involves complex interactions between a region and its neighbors over long periods of time. This is why the initial stages in the formation of a storm usually happens far from where it will first be spotted as a low pressure area or tropical depression. It is for this reason that scientists studying hurricanes in the Atlantic also study air circulation patterns in west-central Africa, and those who monitor typhoons in the Pacific also concern themselves with atmospheric conditions over China and Siberia.

The very, very tangled web of global air currents. (And that is NOT even the entire picture.) [Image credit: go.grolier.com]

The very, very tangled web of global air currents. (And that is NOT even the entire picture.) [Image credit: go.grolier.com]

The interconnectedness of the Earth’s climate systems means that one cannot isolate the north central Pacific and manipulate only its climate by releasing supposed EM beams in the vicinity of a low pressure area, as what the conspiracy theories will have us believe. We are still a long way from having the technology that will allow us to control weather in the macroscale, but from what we do know, future attempts to manipulate the weather must be global and not local in scope. (One way in which we humans affect, although not manipulate, the climate on a global scale is our inadvertent and uncontrolled changing of the climate through an enhanced greenhouse effect.)

 

4. The energy of the storm winds is immense.

Even if we ignore the many physical errors involved in supposing that a beam of microwave radiation can make a cloud system spin, the math of the energies involved simply does not add up.  Ignoring the stupendous amount of energy required to produce the storm clouds (see Item 1), the kinetic energy of the winds in an average storm amounts to about 36 billion kW-h per day. If, for the sake of argument, we pretend that a microwave pulse can produce a vortex in a low pressure area, the required force exerted by the beam would be equivalent to the force exerted by 25 simultaneous nuclear explosions per day. That is something no global conspiracy can hide.

"Let me unleash the power of a dozen nuclear bombs on you." [Image credit: Marvel Enterprises.]

“Let me unleash the power of a dozen nuclear bombs on you.” [Image credit: Marvel Enterprises.]

5. Coincidence is not causation.

Videos showing the emission of several microwave beams in the north Pacific region around the time of Typhoon Haiyan’s formation simply confuse coincidence with causation. The emission of electromagnetic beams around the same time and area as the formation of a typhoon in no way implies that the storm was caused by the beams. This is neither rocket science nor climate science, it’s just basic science.

 

Back to basics

As this writer noted in a previous article, Typhoon Yolanda reminds us that when it comes to our dealings with the natural world, we should all go back to basics. After all, an appreciation of the scales involved and the basics of scientific reasoning are not just handy in battling nutty conspiracy theories, they also can, and should, be used to save lives in the future. Now that we have this nonsense out of the way, it’s time to talk about solid science in order to mitigate the effects of future natural catastrophes.

 

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Some Things Typhoon Yolanda Reminds Us Of

The devastation Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) left in its wake leaves us no choice but to help in some capacity or another. (See these links to learn about some of the ways you can help.) But when the rubble is cleared and everything is put to working order again, here are some of the things that we need change in society and in ourselves as a response to the wakeup call that is Typhoon Yolanda.

 

1. We should “do more science”

More storms make landfall on the Philippines than on any other large country on Earth. This one fact demands that the science curriculum in the country should be tailored to produce basic education graduates who understand how tropical storms roll. Knowing how typhoons behave, of course, implies a grasp of atmospheric physics and climate systems, neither of which are simple and trivial. We are therefore left with no choice but to strengthen science education in the Philippines. Allowing an inadequately informed population to live on the stormlands that are the Philippine islands is a massive inhumanity.

More Filipinos should be like this.

 

2. We should start talking about the weather more often

Although a cooperative public education system is evidently a must in educating the public, sometimes waiting for the government can be like waiting for Godot. We should therefore start with ourselves, friends, and loved ones. One way to do this is by swapping information on how best to minimize the negative effects of storms in our lives, and how best to respond to the negative effects when they finally come. Boring as it sounds, Filipinos should start talking about weather. It’s science, after all, and since the cultural milieu is beginning to embrace the “science is awesome” meme, we should let the “climate science is mind blowing” message hitch a ride on the wave of science’s popularity. After all, people who geek out over weather science are useful to have around during picnics.

 

[Photo credit: blog.commodityweather.com]

3. We need additional weather geeks

As people who live in a country pummeled by record-breaking typhoons on a regular basis, we should place more economic and cultural value on meteorological knowledge. This means that meteorology geeks shouldn’t only be adequately paid, they should also be awarded rock star status. This is only possible in a culture where basic knowledge of the weather is valued and where the power and limits of science are well-appreciated, because otherwise you get all these people who love parroting the phrase “Wala talagang PAGASA ang PAGASA”, or who never tire of the old joke, “If PAGASA says it will be sunny tomorrow, I will bring an umbrella because it’s sure to rain.” Of course PAGASA has an awful lot of room for improvements, but science is not divination and forecasting is not fortunetelling. Science has its limits, and we must understand these limits before we can expand them and exploit science’s powers for the improvement of human well-being.

“You so hot whenever you talk about the Intertropical Convergence Zone.” [Photo credit: bloomsburyinternational.wordpress.com ]

4. We should be extra sensitive to typhoon traffic

Some parts of the Philippine archipelago are more frequently storm-stricken than others. In light of this, people should be encouraged to live and build businesses on parts of the country with relatively more clement climates. More importantly, for the millions of Filipinos already living in places with high typhoon traffic, layers of safety nets should be in place to minimize the damage.

How can this be accomplished? As always, cooperation from the government must be demanded. But once again, a well-informed public will do wonders. If people know which places are relatively typhoon-free, most of them will be encouraged to move there. For those who do not have the proclivity or motivation to move, structures and systems should be in place to prepare for the worst, like, Yolanda worst.

We already see some of this at work, such as in how Ivatan homes in Batanes are designed to take a pounding or in the fact that the eastern part of Luzon, the part facing the Pacific Ocean, is sparsely populated compared to the western part. But there are still a lot left to be desired, as was illustrated by the horrifying examples of evacuation centers whose roofs were blown away, or relief operations centers that are badly undermanned and underfunded. In parts of the country constantly pummeled by storms, substandard evacuation centers can usually be traced to negligence and insufficient funding of the type that makes graft and corruption heinous crimes.

An Ivatan house. [Photo credit: ch.hothdwallpaper.net]

5. We should learn to respect nature

Most city dwellers living in the age of the Internet and modern technology usually fail to appreciate the awesome power and complexity of nature, often to our demise. Typhoon Yolanda serves as a wakeup call that our planet is capable of unleashing tremendous destruction on its inhabitants. Some scientists even suspect that Yolanda might already give us a teaser of the full effects of climate change, a mess we are all in partly because of the failure of previous generations to appreciate the delicate complexity of our planet’s cycles.

Typhoon Yolanda reminds us that our respect for nature must not be limited to a theoretical awe of natural phenomena, but a knowledge that moves us to action to save our lives and the lives of others. While we wish to see improvements in governance and changes in society as a whole, the change should start from our culture and ourselves.

 

6. We  should always try to help in whatever way we can

The time to help is now. But it will never be over, for in the stormlands it will always be time to help. When all survivors are dry, fed, and placed under a safe roof, the next thing we must do would be to change our culture.

Always trying to help in whatever way you can is part of the cultural change that needs to happen. [Photo credit: www.theguardian.com]

Posted in Science, Society4 Comments

Hiwaga and Humbug on Philippine TV

In recent posts on Facebook and Twitter, the social media accounts of the ABS-CBN show Hiwaga asked the following question: “Ayon sa teorya ni Charles Darwin, nagmula ang mga tao sa unggoy… kaya maari bang bumalik uli tayo dito? (According to the theory of Charles Darwin, humans came from monkeys… so is it possible that we will go back to being monkeys?)”

Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 10.15.47 AM

 

This leading question, even if not representative of the entire content of the episode, is still reprehensible for its sensationalism of the theory of evolution, a sensationalism that can contribute to worsening the public’s misapprehension of Darwin’s theory. However, given the new show’s track record so far, it is likely that the people in charge of the show, including host Atom Araullo, will make monkeys out of themselves in their treatment of the monkeys-to-men question.

In this article, I will start by fleshing out my criticism of the post on Darwin’s theory, then I will go on to criticize the very spirit of shows like Hiwaga. I will extend this criticism to cover all forms of superstition, pseudoscience, and sloppy science in Philippine TV. Finally I will appeal to the show’s host Atom Araullo, who is an alumnus of Philippine Science High School and the University of the Philippines, an applied physics graduate, and an activist, to find it in his conscience to leave the program and criticize it publicly.

 

Of Monkeys and Men

So what about monkeys and men? According to the theory of evolution, apes, including humans, share a recent common ancestor with modern monkeys. Careful comparison of bones and body structure, as well as analyses of genes and biomolecules, helped establish the phylogenetic tree (a sort of family tree of species) of apes and monkeys. The tree below showing the relatedness of apes (like chimps, gorillas, and humans) and monkeys (like the Philippine macaque) explain why they have many similarities and important differences.

A tree showing the relatedness of monkeys and apes (including humans). [Image credit: www.swcs.us]

Does this say we come from monkeys? Sinasabi ba nito na nanggaling tayo sa unggoy? No and yes. What this says is that apes and monkeys share a fairly recent common ancestor. The last ancestor shared by the Old World monkeys and apes lived a bit more than 20 million years ago (mya). This ancestor probably looked more like modern monkeys than like apes, and if it were still alive today we would probably call it a monkey. In other words, we humans descended from monkey-like ancestors that lived more than 20 mya. But we did not come from modern monkeys or chimpanzees; the fellow shown in the picture below is a relative of ours, not an ancestor nor a “primitive” form of human.

The Philippine macaque, a local species of monkey. [Photo credit: en.wikipedia.org]

Why is this issue of the exact relationship between monkey and man so important as to lead me to criticize the post on Hiwaga’s social media accounts? Here’s why the theory of evolution is important.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, independently discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace, explains the origin of diversity in the living world. It tells us that all living organisms on Earth are related, but by different degrees. The modern version of the theory of evolution can also explain many aspects of living things, such as why many plants have colorful flowers, why certain bacteria produce very potent toxins, and why animals behave in certain ways.

The theory of evolution is important because we and the flora and fauna we depend on are products of evolution; to understand ourselves and the organisms around us, a correct understanding of evolution is necessary. To provide a concrete example, the rice we eat is a product of artificial selection, a process very similar to natural selection, and some genetic engineering. The recent attacks on ‘golden rice’ research in the Philippines is partly due to a serious lack of understanding about how artificial and natural selection work.

Then you should’ve listened closely in biology class. But don’t worry, it’s not too late. You can always demand more informative shows from our TV and radio stations.

Evolution also affects us not just in geological time but also in real time. The critters that plague our farms and the viruses and bacteria that make us sick undergo evolution within our lifetimes. Failure to grasp the effects of evolution on the scale of a few years can lead to unscientific and dangerous positions such as being against vaccines.

In addition to the direct importance of understanding evolution, sensational simplifications contribute greatly to the spread of misunderstandings such as that embodied by statements like “So why are there still monkeys around if we came from monkeys?”  Science sensationalism also gives fodder to anti-scientific movements like creationism.

These are but a few reasons why the theory of evolution is important, and why its sensationalism by Hiwaga and other media outlets deserves criticism. I understand that the journalistic intention behind the post is to catch people’s attentions using a language familiar to them, thereby increasing the probability that they will watch the show. That is no excuse for sensationalism. I just hope that the people behind the show, especially its host Atom Araullo, will redeem themselves during the episode itself. And this show needs a lot of redeeming, as we will soon see.

 

Superstition and Sloppy Science

Several studies have shown that the science and math aptitudes of most Filipino students are dismal. It does not help that the few science-related shows on TV exhibit sloppy thinking in their explanation of scientific concepts. Kim Atienza’s Matanglawin is a good example of this, but since using it as an example is too easy, let me use another. This clip from the GMA show iBilib demonstrates the fact that water and oil do not mix. Host Chris Tiu shows the viewers how the hydrophobic properties of oil can be use to make a “dagat in a bottle”. The show’s aim of making science accessible to Filipino kids is admirable. Unfortunately, the show, at least to me, lacks the philosophical dimension necessary to make students interested in science and not just in the tinkering of household stuff. Spectacular and cute phenomena are a great way to pique kids’ interest, but the focus should not be on the spectacle. The wow factor must simply be a means to get kids to be curious, skeptical, and scientific. If Bill Nye can make a science program just with these specifications, then I believe iBilib must do it too.

Bill Nye the Science Guy, proof that you don’t have to be sloppy to be interesting.

My beef with iBilib and similarly sloppy science programs like Kim Atienza’s Matanglawin, however, is with its frequent use of sloppy or even erroneous scientific explanations of the phenomena. The clip showing the sea-in-a-bottle demonstration is just one of the many instances where Tiu throws a sloppy or erroneous explanation at the curious people who watch his show. In the clip, the host is wrong in saying that oil and water do not mix because of their different densities. Water and alcohol mix even if their densities are different. Fresh water and saltwater also mix even though the latter is slightly denser than the former. If a science show claims things that can be contradicted by kids’ experiences, what will that tell the young viewers about science’s role in describing nature?

To Chris Tiu: Density is the reason why the oil layer is above the water layer, but it does not explain why water and oil do not mix. The actual explanation of non-mixing is more subtle and marvelous. Next time, double check and triple check your script before you say it in front of an entire nation of admiring young viewers. This is not the only instance in which you relayed wrong information to those kids. You owe them an apology and you need to make amends.

Chris Tiu, I bet your chem teacher is mad at you right now. You should’ve listened to her more. [Photo credit: teachengineering.org]

And now back to Atom Auraullo and Hiwaga. If Chris Tiu in iBilib frequently exhibits haphazard thinking, Atom in Hiwaga is mostly just peddling superstition and pseudoscience on Philippine TV. The woo starts from the very title of the program. I’m already worried about the title of iBilib, because it seems to imply that science is a matter of belief.  So you can imagine my reaction when I heard that there was another show entitled Hiwaga, a Filipino word that means “mystery”. When I saw promotional videos of the TV program, my worries about it were confirmed. In this episode of the show, for example, Atom interviews an “expert” on Feng Shui. In another episode, Araullo discusses so-called out of body experiences and “astral projections”. Still another episode entertains the possibility of premonitions.

Hiwaga is unfortunately just the latest incarnation in a long series of shows and segments on Philippine TV clearly capitalizing on Filipino supernatural and unscientific beliefs. Shows like Rated K hosted by Korina Sanchez and Kapuso Mo Jessica Soho are just a few of the other programs that ride the sensational wave of superstition and pseudoscience. The use of “umano” and “daw” in the reporting of supernatural claims rarely help, as these program hosts regularly fail to amply discuss the lack of scientific merits of the claims they report. In the end, these shows’ ‘di umanos just remind us of Pontius Pilate. What these umanos and daws effectively do is to allow the TV programs to throw mountains of claptrap into the viewing public while absolving the show runners of the guilt of misinformation. Well, I’m sorry Korina and Jessica, what you and many other journalists are doing is still misinformation. Why? Because the discussions on the value of skepticism in your shows are frequently inadequate, sometimes even watered down by closing messages that go along the along the lines of “let’s be open minded about these things” or “science does not know everything and life is full of mysteries woooo…” Your umanos and daws do not absolve you.

“There, I said ‘umano’. Now it’s time to report about ghosts hauntings, demonic possessions, and faith healing.”

To the writers, researchers, producers, and hosts of TV programs that promote superstition among Filipinos, I ask you to rethink your values. I believe I don’t need to preach the importance of science and the dangers of superstition and pseudoscience to the lot of you, you should know it by now. Hence, let me just remind you that your aim is to inform the Filipino people, not befuddle them. You should never sacrifice the truth in the name of higher ratings. I understand that most Filipinos are ignorant and superstitious, and that a show about superstition will appeal to them more than a show about skepticism. But you should give them programs that they need, not programs they want.

 

A Request to Atom Araullo

As promised in the start of this article, I will end my piece by making an appeal to Atom Araullo’s better judgment.

Dear Atom,

As a good-looking Pisay and UP alumnus working in media, you have great powers. Your responsibilities are therefore equally great, and chief among these is your responsibility of informing the public on correct ways of thinking about the world. As a science graduate, an activist, and a reporter, your duty to seek, fight for, and relay the truth demands that you rethink your role in the show. Try educating the writers and executives of the program on the proper ways of reporting supernatural claims. The local superstitions and ghost stories you tackle in the show are excellent entry points into critical thinking, skepticism, and scientific reasoning, and you should use them as such. Intriguing questions that the Filipino public can relate to are excellent in catching their attention, but since your subject matter is very sensitive, the writers should be very careful with the wording of your script. You should not forget to stress the value of skeptical inquiry and the importance of demanding extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.

Finally, if those writers, researchers, and executives cannot be convinced, I appeal to your better judgment as a person to please leave that show and criticize it publicly.

Thank you.

Yours,

Pecier C. Decierdo

Science Advocacy Director

Filipino Freethinkers

Posted in Science, Society10 Comments

A Quick Guide to Detecting Quantum Quackery

The world of quantum mechanics is strange, that much is true. Quantum theory paints a world where tiny particles can get entangled over cosmic distances, where teleportation is possible, where uncertainty is not simply a product of experimental imperfections but is fundamental in nature, and where vacuum is a seething broth of virtual particles popping in and out of existence from nothingness. 

Unfortunately, the strangeness of the quantum world has been grossly abused either by those who do not understand quantum mechanics, or those who wish to benefit from this lack of understanding. Merchants who sell crystals claimed to have “healing quantum vibrations”, writers like Deepak Chopra who preach about the mind’s power in influencing events via “quantum consciousness”, and proponents of farming methods based on “quantum agriculture” are just a few examples in the long list of people who peddle quantum quackery. In fact, most of these charlatans altogether forgo trying to understand what quantum theory is about. For them, the word ‘quantum’ is a shroud of mystery, a veil of ignorance behind which lie phenomena forever beyond the reach of scientific scrutiny. These people not only spread bad science, they spread a value that is antithetical to learning. In other words, they promote a mindset that is anti-scientific. This is why we cannot cut these guys any slack.

Deepak Mechanics

How do we distinguish quantum quackery from genuine studies in quantum theory? In an interview with NBC News science editor Alan Boyle, physicist Lawrence Krauss gave a few tips in detecting quantum quackery. What follows are some additional quick guides to quantum baloney detection.

 

Rule of thumb #1: Quantum quacks rarely, if at all, refer to the basic principles of quantum physics.

Quantum theory involves a lot of laws, equations, and principles, although some of these are so basic and fundamental to the field that they are referred to in almost all discussions. A good example would be the concept of the wave function. The wave function is a mathematical entity that contains everything we know about the particle, like its energy or the probability of finding it somewhere in space. When something uses the word “quantum” but does not depend on the concept of a wave function or a similarly fundamental quantum concept, it probably has nothing to do with quantum theory.

40110872

 

Rule of thumb #2: Quantum quacks misapply the weirdness of quantum phenomena at the wrong scale.

Soccer balls, unlike electrons, don’t diffract if you make them pass through slits. And unlike a small particle, you cannot walk through a solid wall by continuously bumping against it. There is no real-world Platform 9 ¾.

Quantum mechanics, being our best theory of matter and forces to date, governs the behaviors of electrons and soccer balls alike. However, even though the laws of physics don’t change across different scales, their manifestations do. This is true even in classical physics, and is the reason why you can’t have ants as big as elephants, or why the physics of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is all wrong (because, you know,  square-cube law). The predictions of quantum theory agree with classical mechanics in the scale of the everyday, a scale that includes soccer balls, fruits, and vegetables. You cannot treat a tomato as both particle and wave, and you cannot treat crops as if they are “entangled” with the the stars.

Um, that’s not what quantum entanglement means guys.

 

Rule of thumb #3: Quantum quacks love making vague statements that, upon close inspection, actually mean nothing.

The Random Deepak Chopra Quote Generator drives this point humorously.

Random Deepak Wisdom

In infinite potentiality Deepak Chopra breeds the light for a new chaotic harmony.

Science, as opposed to pseudoscience, is distinguished by the precision of its language. We want scientific statements to be precise because we want to know how we can prove them wrong. In other words, we want to know if they can be falsified, and how, which brings us to the next rule of thumb.

 

Rule of thumb #4: Quantum quackery does not make falsifiable claims, which is an indication that it is in fact pseudoscience.

Quantum physics, being a science, makes claims that can be proven wrong by experimentation. That is something you cannot say about “quantum consciousness”. More importantly, the claims of quantum physics can be compared against measurements obtained through experimentation. This brings us to the next red flag of quantum quackery.

 

Rule of thumb #5:Quantum quacks don’t make quantitative predictions.

Quantum mechanics, like most of modern physics, is heavily mathematical. The point of all this math is to be able to make predictions that come in the form of measurable quantities. This is important because a quantitative prediction is the best form of falsifiable claim.

Shit happens. Bullshit, too. Magic doesn’t.

 

Rule of thumb #6: Like most peddlers of woo-woo, quantum quacks confuse criticism with persecution, and thus hate being criticized.

But science thrives because of skepticism and criticism. Like all scientific paradigms, quantum theory has passed the scrutiny and very high standards of the scientific community (and it has done so with flying colors). Also, like all scientific principles, you can convince yourself that it is true by performing your own experiments and calculations. And you can do this without fooling yourself or others. You cannot say the same about fields like, say, quantum agriculture.

QA

“Plants have feelings too!” Ooookay.

tl;dr: People who use quantum jargon to make their woo-woo sound legitimate fail to understand that the quantum world, though weird by the standards of classical physics, is lawful. Quantum phenomena may be baffling, but they’re not magical. So when anything involves magical thinking, it’s probably pseudoscience.

 

Posted in Science3 Comments

The RH Law and the Ideals and Aspirations of Filipinos

[Photo credit: newsinfo.inquirer.net]

Barely two weeks after the RH Law was passed, James Imbong, son of CBCP legal counsel Jo Imbong, and his wife Lovely-Ann Imbong, filed a petition to stop the implementation of the newly-minted law. The said petition is an orgy of fallacies, to say the least. And orgies, for those who were not yet informed, are what will result from the passage of the RH Law, or so the petitioners seem to imply.

On a more serious note, the Supreme Court’s reaction to the petition should be closely studied because at its heart is the battle for the “ideals and aspirations” of Filipinos. According to the petitioners, the RH Law “negates and frustrates” the said ideals and aspirations. The petitioners even go as far as saying that the RH Law mocks “the nation’s Filipino culture – noble and lofty in its holdings on life, motherhood and family.”

What is curious about this aspect of the petition is that reproductive health supporters can use exactly the same words to uphold the constitutionality of the law. Majority of Filipinos support the RH Law precisely because it upholds our ideals and aspirations. Using the words of the same Preamble the petitioners used, it can be pointed out that our nation needs the RH Law to “build a just and human society” and “promote the common good, conserve and develop our patrimony, and secure to ourselves and our posterity, the blessings of independence and democracy under the rule of law and a regime of truth, justice, freedom, love, equality, and peace.”

Both supporters and opponents of the RH Law agree that our country should be built upon values and the appreciation of the sanctity of life. Hence, it all boils down to what one means when one uses the words “values” and “sanctity of life”. What the Imbongs seem to forget is that the secular nature of Philippine government demands that our foundational values be secular values, and if these secular values conflicts with the values of a particular religion, then so much the worse for the religious values. While it is true that the petitioners tried their best to present secular arguments against the RH Law, the density of fallacies presented in the petition strongly suggests puritanical and religious motivations behind its filing.

How the High Court responds to the petition should be studied closely because the battle for the law on divorce and marriage equality will surely be fought in the same front. In other words, the issue of divorce and marriage equality will once again see us wrestling with the “ideals and aspirations” of Filipinos.

I want to live in a just and humane society where the common good is promoted, where national patrimony is conserved and developed, and where the next generation is raised in “noble and lofty” values that hold life sacred. This is why the RH Law has my support. And this is why I will advocate the passage of a law on divorce and marriage equality. I am confident that my ideals and aspirations are the ideals and aspirations of many Filipinos as well.

Posted in Secularism, Society2 Comments

How to Celebrate Newtonmas

How to Celebrate Newtonmas

Many people around you are commemorating the humble coming of Christ by extravagantly and wastefully observing pagan practices. What are you to do, lonely heathen? Fear not, you can commemorate the birth of Isaac Newton by celebrating Newtonmas! Here are a few tips on how to do it:

  1. Tell everyone that like Jesus, Newton wasn’t really born on Christmas Day. Although he was also born on Christmas Day. Wait, what? Well, it has something to do with some confusion between two calendars. When Isaac Newton was born, most of the world was already using the more accurate Gregorian calendar, which is the same calendar we are using up to this day. However the English, being English, were still using the old Julian calendar during the time of Newton’s birth, and in the Julian calendar little Isaac was born on the 25th of December, 1642. During the time, however, the Julian calendar was already off by more than a week so that in the Gregorian calendar, Newton’s birthday is actually January 4, 1643.

“Isaac must go on top of the tree.” [Image credit: tumblr/shitsheldoncoopersays]

  1. Since it’s the season for Newton, buy your godchildren prisms as presents! Include little “research problems” that they can try to solve using the prisms. For example, you can ask them to convince their parents that when all the colors of the rainbow are combined, what you get is white light. In this way, they can reenact Newton’s experimentum crucis, which is not a Harry Potter spell but rather is one of the most beautiful and elegant experiments in science.

Newton’s critical experiment. [Image credit: peace-files.com]

  1. If you’re feeling a little indulgent, buy yourself a Newtonian telescope and discover the beauties of heavenly bodies, both those in the sky and those living next door.

[Image credit: optocorp.com]

  1. Feeling the spirit of Newtonmas strong in you? Approach your little nephews and nieces and teach them a bit of Newtonian physics. Tell them about the three rules that obeyed by everything around us.
  • First rule, things don’t budge when nothing budges them. In other words, unless an object is pushed or pulled, it will keep on moving the way it did. (If it wasn’t moving in the fist place, then it will keep on staying put.)
  • Second rule, the heavier a thing is, the more you need to push or pull it in order to change the way it moves. Also, if you want to change how something moves more, then you must give it a stronger nudge.
  • Third rule, when you kick something, it will always kick you back. And it will kick you back as strongly as you kicked it.
  • Tell your nephews and nieces that remembering the above rules will help them avoid the following mistake:

[Image credit: Homes]

  1. If you want in on Newton’s extreme eccentricity, you can try performing some of his more crazy-ass experiments. See the bodkin below? Newton stuck something similar into his eye socket and prodded his eye ball with it to study how images get formed in the human eye. I’m not kidding you, the guy was batshit crazy.

Newton: “I want this thing inside me.” [Image credit: images.onlinegalleries.com]

  1. Read the following passage to all your smart friends: “This chaos is called our arsenic, our air, our Luna, our magnase, our Calebs, but in diverse respect, because our matter undergoes various states before our regal diadem is extracted from the menstrual blood of our whore. So learn who the comrades of Cadmus are, and who the serpent who ate them, and what the hollow oak on which Cadmus transfixed the serpent! Learn what the doves of Diana are which conquer the lion by beating him.” This passage is from the alchemical tract The Open Entrance to the Closed Palace of the King, one of Newton’s favorite. Yes, even the smartest people can subscribe to the most unfounded beliefs. We should therefore be ever vigilant about the things we believe in. Newton’s example reminds us of the beauty of having no one person as absolute intellectual authority. In short, it helps us appreciate being a freethinker.

So there you go, a few holiday tips from one heathen to another.  This Newtonmas, remember to give the gift of discovery to the people you love. And don’t forget to have a happy holiday!

[Image credit: maths.crhs.org.uk]

Posted in Society2 Comments

How To (Really) End The World

How To (Really) End The World

No, the world is not going to end this week. That belief is too unfounded to be even worth a rebuttal.

Now that we have that out of the way, let us talk about more productive things, like how to really end the world. But before we can start with our crash course on world ending, let us first look at what people usually mean when they say the end is nigh. Based on a survey done by a reputable organization composed solely of the author of this article, when people say “the world is ending” they usually mean one the following things:

  1. they lost their iPhone;
  2. human civilization will collapse or people will be wiped out from the face of the Earth;
  3. all or a significant portion of life on Earth will end;
  4. the universe will end.

Since no one really cares if some hipster lost his iPhone, I hope everyone agrees that we can skip the first item. Let us now take a look at how we can successfully bring about the other three world-ending scenarios.

[Image credit: memegenerator.net]

Bye Bye Humans

Here’s how you end human civilization: you do nothing. Or, to be more precise, you just allow humans to keep on doing what they are doing right now. I’m not kidding; just let them carry on with their lives. They’re already civilization-destroying forces just as they are.

How does this work? Here’s how it goes. If humans live as they live right now, then the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere will just keep on going up. This will have the effect of further messing up the Earth’s climate. If humans do not change, the climate will.

[Image credit: wwf.be]

But how can climate change end human civilization? When it gets hot in here, can’t people just follow Nelly’s advice and take off all their clothes? Excellent as Nelly’s advice is (and I surely recommend it to some of more well-endowed human specimens), it simply wouldn’t do because the Earth’s systems are just so damned complicated. Even a mere 1-degree increase in global average temperature can ruin the whole delicate balance of the Earth’s life-supporting systems.

“I’ve got the solution to global warming y’all!” [Image credit: sandgent.co.uk]

Let me mention just a few of the many possible nightmare scenarios that can be brought about by climate change.

First, sea level will rise significantly, causing many major cities to get flooded. If fishes want Manila City, they could inherit it someday, although I already here them saying “Thanks, but no thanks.” Students of UST know for a fact that nature has already been doing not-so-dry runs of this thing, and for those who wish to see the end of human civilization it’s all looking good.

Second, many ecosystems will be messed up and might even crash. Scientists who study the details of this nightmare scenario usually get a lot less sleep at night. But just to give you an idea, when an important ecosystem crashes, farms will fail, the sea  will give up providing fishes (and I’m not even talking about overfishing yet), and the creatures that provide humans with much needed oxygen might simply call it quits.

If those scenarios have not impressed you yet, then this one might. Some scientists think that climate change might cause the ocean’s thermohaline circulation to stop. The thermohaline circulation acts as the ocean’s conveyor belt, distributing oxygen, carbon dioxide and nutrients throughout the ocean’s many levels. If this circulation stops, then much of the ocean will be reduced to a big puddle of stagnant water. When this happens, many ecosystems in the ocean will get messed up, and we’re back to the scenario discussed in the previous paragraph.

Well, that’s just climate change. There are other things that can cause the crash of human civilization without any help from a malevolent Loki figure, like the world’s oil reserves running dry, or overpopulation causing a population crash just like what happened to the reindeer of St. Matthew Island.

If you want to be more proactive in bringing about the demise of human civilization, then you might want to introduce a microbial pathogen that is downright nasty, spreads fast, and is quick to mutate and develop resistance to drugs, quite like the virus that caused SARS. Since international flights are so common nowadays, this pathogen will find it easy to go global. And while you’re at it, why not make it a virus that attacks the human immune system? In other words, why not make a nastier version of the HIV? Also, if you feel a little creative and sadistic, try to go for a zombie apocalypse virus. Although making it spread globally could be a bit tricky considering how strict airport authorities are when it comes to passengers who bite their airplane seatmates.

“I’m sorry ma’am, but the seat belt sign is turned on. I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to sit down.”

 

Hurtling Hunks of Rock

But if you really want to end a world, why just go for just one species out of the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions that call the Earth their home? When humans go extinct, will bad ass tardigrades give a damn? No.

Tardigrade: “Human civilization has collapsed? Do I look like I care?” [Image credit: sciencephoto.com]

Species come and go all the time; extinction is a part of life on Earth and it is the ultimate fate of all species that exist. Dodos and dinosaurs are not losers for going extinct, they just got there before humans did. (Although at the rate humans are going, they won’t be far behind.) Scientists estimate that around 99.9% of all species that have ever existed have now gone extinct. In fact, every few million years several species go extinct.

However, for us who want to see the world end, several extinctions every few million years are not enough. What we want is a mass extinction event, a massive blowout where up to 90% of all species on Earth bid goodbye to existence within a very short span of time. (And by “very short” we mean around a few million years.) Feel free to choose any of the following means to bring about your desired mass extinction event:

  • Send a big hunk of rock (an asteroid, a comet or a big meteor) hurtling towards the Earth. If this hunk of rock is big and fast enough, its collision with the Earth can release the energy contained in millions of tons of TNT. How much energy is that? Well, just enough to boil much of the ocean. It will also be enough send tons of dust into the air, covering the Sun for years on end and causing the Earth’s climate to change – and we’re back to climate change, yay!
  • Your big hunk of rock does not really need to hit the Earth to cause a lot of damage. If it’s big enough, even a close encounter with the Earth can cause a drastic change in the Earth’s orbital tilt, rate of rotation or distance from the Sun. If any of the mentioned things happen, creatures everywhere will suddenly find themselves in places too hot, too cold, too humid or too dry for them. Once this happens, many of the more choosy creatures – which is, well, most of them – will say goodbye to existence, and a cascade of extinctions will ensue.
  • Turn up the Sun. Or, alternately, turn in down. Just do it quickly. The Sun has been having mood swings for billions for years now. However, it’s been doing it slowly enough that a lot of the Earth’s creatures were able to adapt to many of them. A sudden overabundance of sunlight, or a sudden lack of it, will surely change the climate drastically. Yes, you’ll never go wrong with climate change, fellow world-ender.
  • Let the Sun go red giant. It will do this a few billion years from now, anyway, so why prolong the suffering of all earthlings? Go ahead and let their star become a big red ball that will boil all their oceans and possibly even consume their planet.

[Image credit: astronomynotes.com]

  •  Help the humans do their work of causing the sixth mass extinction. Scientists have discovered five mass extinction events in the 4.5-billion year history of the Earth. The most popular of the five is the one that led to the demise of all non-avian dinosaurs. Nearly all scientists agree that it was caused by an asteroid impact around 65 million years ago. (If you want to sound smart, call this the K-Pg mass extinction event. K-Pg stands for Cretaceous-Paleogene. It was between these two periods that the extinction event happened. It used to be called the K-T event, for Cretaceous-Tertiary.) The greatest of the five, however, was the Permian extinction event, also known as the Great Dying (dun dun dun!). The Great Dying (dun dun dun!) involved, well, a great amount of dying. 90% of all the species on Earth alive at the time, to be more precise. Many scientists think that a sixth extinction event is on the way, and it is caused by the joy humans derive from cutting down trees and polluting the seas. Hence, if you want to see the end of the world as we know it, you might give these Homo sapiens a little help in their endeavor.

[Photo credit: i.chzbgr.com]

  • Life on Earth is resilient. The cosmos has been sending all sorts of nasty stuff to Earth for billions of years, and yet life goes on. If you really want to obliterate life on Earth, you might want to send a rogue black hole to the Solar System. The black hole will gulp up the Sun and all its planets and that’s the end of it goodbye thank y’all.
  • If you want to be a bit more dramatic, you can make a supernova explode a few light-years from the Sun. Even though it’s billions of kilometers away from Earth, it will still incinerate all the planets of the Solar System, ending life in this sector of the galaxy for good.

 

Crunching and Heat

Yes, yes, I know, with billions upon billions of planets in the universe some of you might find it lame to end life in just one planet. You want to end all life in the galaxy, even in the universe, right? Well, unfortunately for us, the universe is such damned big place. How big, you ask? Well, damned big. If you want numbers, the observable universe is about 46 billion light years or 4,300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 meters across. Good luck with trying  to comprehend that.

One way of ending something this huge is by adding enormous amounts of matter to it. You can even add dark matter, if you’re into that sort of thing. If you add enough matter, this will cause the universe to become closed. In a closed universe that lacks dark energy, there will be enough matter to stop the current expansion. This will lead to a universal contraction and an eventual Big Crunch, which is just a delicious name for the opposite of the eve more deliciously-named Big Bang.

 

The Big Crunch

Unfortunately for those who like to crunch, the universe has a lot of this thing they call dark energy. Scientists know very little about dark energy, but whatever it is, it seems to exert a repulsive force that accelerates the expansion of the universe. If this is indeed the case, the only way for the universe to “end” is by undergoing a heat death. The heat death of the universe will happen when all the energy in the universe will be converted to useless energy, that is, energy that cannot be used to do work. This is given by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that as time goes by, the energy in the universe gets more evenly distributed. Evenly distributed energy is heat, which is energy that cannot be exploited to do anything useful. Since life requires energy that can be used to do work, the head dead universe will not be able to support life of any kind.

Now to the important question, how can you bring about the heat death of the universe? Answer: you do nothing; let the Second Law of Thermodynamics do its work. Give it time. Be patient.

 

Take Home

So there you go, a teaser course on how to end the world. By now I think you would’ve noticed that it’s not really that difficult helping the world reach its demise. With lots of humans caring greatly about trivial things and little about things that matter, the world needs little help to meet its destruction. As a matter of fact, tremendous effort is expected not from those who want to end the world, but from those who want to pass it on the next generation. Even more effort is required from those who want to see a better tomorrow for their descendants. So it’s time to stop reading this article and start help building a better world for all of us. After all, the world is not ending anytime soon.

Posted in Humor, Science, Society0 Comments

Curiosity Speaks

Now that the hoopla over Curiosity’s landing has died down, let us stand back and examine what has been achieved to see if it was really worth all that hype.

Below is a picture of Mars as seen from Earth. That reddish dot in the sky is an alien world hurtling and spinning through the unimaginable vastness of space at astounding velocities, billions of kilometers away from Earth. The smartest members of our species have just sent a laboratory on wheels to that dot. But they did not just aim for that dot, they aimed for a tiny pixel within a pixel within that dot. And they hit the mark. Soon, that lab on wheels will rove its way around a very tiny portion of that little bright spot in the night sky. If that does not make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on their end, then I do not know what will.

Mars as seen from Earth. [Photo credit: stars.astro.illinois.edu]

A pixel in a pixel in a dot in space. [Screenshots from Google Earth.]

And now that we have placed things in perspective, I believe it’s time for Curiosity itself to tell us the rest of its story.

 

Curiosity Speaks

Hello, my name is Curiosity. I am the rover of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) program. I know I am animate only in the broadest sense and that my artificial intelligence is comparable to that of a fly, but allow me this conceit of having conscious thought, if only to tell the story of my mission in Mars. It is, after all, also the story of my cousins, Spirit and Opportunity. It is also the story of Mars. Ultimately, it is also the story of life on Earth. My story is your story, too.

When I landed safely on the surface of Mars on the 6th of August, 2012, my parents at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) were ecstatic. Their ecstasy is understandable not only because they have high hopes for me, but also because my landing was daring. In fact, it was so risky I wouldn’t blame you if you think they were a bit nutty when they planned my entry, descent and landing. To provide a comparison, my cousins Spirit and Opportunity touched down on the surface of the red planet surrounded by giant airbags while I was dropped naked. (In this way, I am more human-like than my predecessors.) The slogan “Dare mighty things” was well chosen for my landing.

I may be beautiful and sophisticated, but I am also hardy. To appreciate this, imagine what I had to survive during my “7 minutes of terror”. Upon my entry to Mars’ thin atmosphere, I was travelling at a speed of 21,000 kilometers per hour. That’s more than 60 times the speed of sound. At that speed I would be able to circle the world in less than two hours. From such unimaginable velocity, I had to decelerate to zero in a mere 7 minutes. At one point during my descent, I survived a deceleration of 9g. Imagine stopping from 120 kph in less than half a second – basically the definition of a fatal car accident – that’s 9g.

My landing was tough, but I was able to pull it off. Sometimes, I had to pull it off literally, as with the sky crane. [Photo credit: universetoday.com]

While the whole world celebrates my safe landing, the challenges I am to face have only begun. Although it is my home from now on, Mars will also be my constant enemy. Unlike Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom, the real Mars is a world very different from Earth. With temperatures ranging from –15°C in the summer to –100°C in the winter, it forbidding even to most robots and extremophiles. But cold as it is on the Martian surface, the pressure here is so low that if you were to stand next to me without wearing a space suite, your blood will boil away into the sparse atmosphere. (That scene from Watchmen when Dr. Manhattan brought Silk Spectre to the surface of Mars is a reminder of how difficult it is for human intuition to understand the environment of another planet.) If any creature evolved to survive on Mars’s surface, it would find the pressure on the summit of Mt. Everest crushingly high.

The hypothetical Martian would also find the Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere exceedingly poisonous. For you earthbound animals who have evolved to handle oxygen so well, it is forgivable that you forget how potent an oxidizing agent it actually is. Here on the fourth planet, the oxygen is locked in the rusty soil and rock that gives the planet its characteristic color. Since Mars’ thin atmosphere is composed largely of carbon dioxide, it will not only suffocate any human foolish enough to breathe it in, it will suffocate even fire. No campfire or candle will burn on the surface of the my new home planet.

The Martian surface is also buffeted by nearly direct solar radiation. Mars does not have an ozone layer. It does not even have a magnetosphere, which means the fierce “solar wind” batters its atmosphere like crazy. And because Mars lacks a significant magnetic field, no auroras streak its pinkish sky. Using a magnetic compass for navigation is not an option here.

Snapshot taken by my cousin, Opportunity. [Photo credit: news.discover.com]

Finally, there are the notorious dust storms of Mars. Because of a combination of low pressure and low gravity, the dust particles on the Martian surface are eager to be airborne. My predecessors have warned me that such storms can rage for months on end. Luckily, my parents at NASA designed me so that I do not depend on the Sun for my energy. Instead of having solar panels like Spirit and Opportunity, I am, like Vikings 1 and 2, powered by the heat generated by a radioactive isotope I carry around with me.

And speaking of power, I need lots of it. After all, I am a not just an explorer, I am a science laboratory on wheels. I carry with me tools as simple as cameras and light microscopes to equipment as complex as a gas chromatograph coupled to a mass spectrometer. (I have at least 4 kinds of spectrometers. You cannot have too many spectrometers.) I use my equipment to analyze the composition of interesting rocks I happen to pass by. However, I do not limit myself to the rocks on the surface. I am armed with a laser gun that blasts off surface rocks,  allowing me to analyze the chemistry of the underlying rocks. I am a mean machine. If intelligent Martians see me walking around their planet, they would think earthlings are waging war against them. It’s like War of  the Worlds, only it’s the other way around.

My parents at NASA call me a robot scientist. In that case, I am a robot meteorologist, geologist, and chemist. Using my powerful instruments, more numerous and sophisticated than the ones aboard Spirit and Opportunity, my mission here is to study the climate of Mars, examine its rocks, and peer into its history. For these purposes my landing site, Gale Crater, was carefully and well chosen. Gale Crater houses kilometers upon kilometers of exposed rock layers. For a terrestrial analogy, think Grand Canyon. Because of its exposed rock strata, Gale Crater is like an open book into parts of Mars’ history. Studying the rock layers at Gale Crater might provide clues to the following questions: Why is Mars so different from Earth? Was there ever plate tectonics on Mars? And did water play an important role in Mars’ history?

I am also here to search for water. Such is a daunting task given how bone-dry Mars is. Compared to the red planet’s surface, the Sahara Desert is a lush, wet forest of life. Not even Frank Herbert’s Arrakis can match the dryness of the real Barsoom.

A view of my innards. [Photo credit: nssphoenix.wordpress.com]

However, there are tantalizing clues that liquid water once flowed in abundance on the ancient Martian surface. Orbiting space probes have taken pictures of what appears to be dried river channels, deltas, and flood plains. Spirit and Opportunity even discovered mineral formations that probably formed in the presence of neutral water. Even more intriguing are the suggestions that there’s more water on Mars today than was initially thought. Much of this is heavily debated by earthbound scientists. The results of my investigations here on Mars may end these debates. It may also start new ones.

You can also call me a robot biologist, although what that means no one clearly knows. In fact, one of my missions is to clarify what it really means to study life. When Viking 1, Viking 2, Spirit, and Opportunity tried to search for life on Mars, their tests were riddled with false positives and inconclusive results. The world even witnessed bedazzled NASA scientists excitedly, and some would say carelessly, announcing signs of “alien life” at every opportunity. Their failures remind you humans how ignorant you are of this thing called life. Because NASA has learned from the failures of my predecessors, I am not going to search for life directly. Instead, I am going to look for conditions that you think are “suitable for life”. For life “as you know it”, at least.

My cousins and I. [Photo credit: abc.net.au]

The success of my landing proves that you humans can achieve mighty things if only you work together. Wars and bigotry are a waste of your energy, resources, and lives. By successfully doing what has been deemed be crazy, my example has the power to encourage a generation of dreamers.

By now I think you understand why I am here on this desolate wilderness called Mars. By studying this world, I can give you humans more insights into your own. By examining this seemingly dead planet, I can help you understand the fragile balance of your living globe. By probing a planet possibly devoid of life, I can help you know more about what it means to be alive.

As for those dreamers my success will inspire, know that I will be here patiently awaiting the coming of your descendants to the surface of the red planet.

Wars vs. Mars.

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Quantum Queries: Where Does The Higgs Boson Fit In?

Higgs Hoopla

Last 4th of July, scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (also known as CERN  — don’t ask me why) made the announcement that they have detected a particle that could possibly be the long sought after Higgs boson.

As a non-hipster science fan, I find it heartwarming that a scientific discovery made in the French-Swiss underground scene is finally making it into the mainstream. However, I noticed that many people are at a loss when it comes to comprehending the excitement surrounding this Higgs thingy. After all, where in the big picture of science does this so-called “God particle” fit in?

[Photo credit: betabeat.com]

The Higgs boson is one of the few missing pieces of the Standard Model of particle physics. If the particle detected this week was indeed a Higgs boson, that’s +100 points for the Standard Model. The Standard Model is currently our best theory when it comes to explaining the behavior of our universe’s basic ingredients. Over past decades, it has been very successful at predicting how every known particle behaves and interacts.

If the universe is a stage, the Standard Model gives us the best insider story about the cast of characters and the role each character plays. Before we can describe what part the Higgs boson plays, we must first introduce the other members of the cast.

 

Enter the Leptons

The first members of the cast are the light leptons. There are six kinds of free-living leptons. The first three have charges, and they are called electrons, muons and tau particles. The next three don’t have charges, and they are called neutrinos. There are three kinds of neutrinos: electron neutrinos, muon neutrinos and tau neutrinos.

Electrons are part of the atoms that make up most of the material things we handle everyday. In fact, electrons are the first subatomic particles to be discovered. You can read this article on a computer screen only because humans have mastered the art of making electrons the way they want it to move.

An electron.

Muons are similar to electrons, only they are heavier and short-lived. Tau particles are even heavier and more short-lived! In particle physics jargon, we say that the electron is stable while the muon and tau particle are unstable. (Most people are, unfortunately, like muons in more ways than one.) It is because of their short lives that we do not meet muons and tau particles in our daily affairs.

A muon.

Neutrinos are very light and elusive particles. They are also neutrally charged, which means that they do not get repelled or attracted by other charges. In fact, they very seldom interact with other particles. This is why it took scientists a while before they finally detected them. In this regard, neutrinos are basically ninja particles!

Neutrino = ninja particle.

Their elusiveness aside, neutrinos are actually everywhere! Right this instant, there are billions upon billions of neutrinos whizzing through your body like bullets flying though mist. You are not feeling it precisely because neutrinos mostly ignore other particles and are ignored by other particles. In fact, they can pass through the Earth like the Earth is not there.

Neutrinos recently made the news when some scientists thought they found neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. It was later discovered that neutrinos don’t break the universe’s speed limit after all.

 

Six Quarks for Muster Mark

The next members of our cast of characters are the quarks. There are also six of them: the up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom quarks (aaawww yeah).

The six quarks are grouped according to “generation”. The up and down quarks belong to the first generation, the charm and strange to the second, and the top and bottom to the third. Quarks in each generation are heavier than those in the previous generation.

What distinguishes the quarks from the leptons is the fact that we do not find free-living quarks. Quarks are always tightly glued to other quarks to form hadrons. When a hadron is composed of a quark and its anti-quark glued together, we call it a meson. Meanwhile, when a hadron is composed of a triad of quarks, we call it a baryon.

You have quadrillions of hadrons in you, and so is the computer screen you are staring at right now. Why? Because the nucleus of atoms are made of protons and neutrons, and protons and neutrons are hadrons. To be more specific, they are baryons; protons and neutrons are made of three quarks glued together very tightly. The proton is made of two up quarks and one down quark while the neutron is made of one up quark and two down quarks.

A proton composed of three quarks, two up quarks and one down quark.

 

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) of CERN is so-called because it was designed to smash together hadrons at very high speed. And also because it’s very large, as far as lab equipment go – it is found in a more or less circular tunnel 27 kilometers in circumference!

 

May the Force Carriers be with You

There are four fundamental forces: gravity, electromagnetic, weak, and strong. According to the Standard Model, the three forces aside from gravity are mediated by particles called force carriers.

Photons are the force carriers of the electromagnetic force. Photons are massless particles that travel at the speed of light, which is not surprising given that photons are the particles of light; light is but a stream of photons. Photons are also responsible for making like charges repel and unlike charges to attract. This means that without photons, atoms won’t exist either, because photons are what keep the electron around the nucleus! Without photons, the universe will be a very dark place indeed.

A photon.

The force carriers of the strong force are called gluons, so-called because they form the “glue” that tightly binds quarks to form hadrons. Like photons, gluons are also massless. Without gluons, protons and neutrons won’t exist.

A gluon.

The weak force, on the other hand, is mediated by heavy force carriers called the W and Z bosons. These particles are around 80-90 times heavier than protons. The obesity of these force carriers is the reason why the weak force, unlike the electromagnetic force, has a very short range. The weak force can only act across distances smaller than an atom. But exotic as it may sound, the weak force is in fact very important to life on Earth. The weak force is responsible for some forms of radioactivity without which our Sun wouldn’t shine and the Earth’s interior wouldn’t be a dynamic fluid.

A W boson.

Of the three forces of the Standard Model, the weak is the weakest and the strong is the strongest (like duh). Compared to the electromagnetic force, the weak force is a trillion times weaker while the strong force is a hundred times stronger.

 

The Punch Line

The Standard Model makes many now well-confirmed predictions about the behavior of the particles that make up our world, but there’s a catch: it seems to say that all the particles of the model (the six leptons, six quarks and the force carriers) have to be massless. Except for photons and gluons, which are indeed massless, this is clearly not the case. This is a problem of the theory. And it’s a major one, too.

This is where the Higgs boson comes to the Standard Model’s rescue. Higgs bosons provide a mechanism that imbues some particles with mass. This happens because Higgs bosons, which are everywhere in the universe, “couple” with some particles and thus supply them mass. The stronger the coupling of the Higgs bosons with a certain particle, the more massive that particle becomes. (Unfortunately, for people who want to lose weight really quickly, changing how you couple with Higgs bosons is not an option.)

In a universe without Higgs bosons, the Standard Model predicts that all particles will be massless and they will all zip across space at the speed of light. Since we find ourselves living in a universe where only photons and gluons can travel at the speed of light, then either Higgs bosons exist or the Standard Model is wrong after all. The discovery of the Higgs boson is therefore a major triumph of the Standard Model.

Higgs boson.

 

In Search of a New Standard

To date, the Standard Model is one of two best theories about the universe. However, it still has a lot of problems. For one, it does not say anything about gravity. For another, it goes haywire when combined with the other theory we have of the universe, General Relativity.

Gravity is the weakest of the four fundamental forces; it is literally weaker than weak. In fact, it is weaker than the weak force by a factor of 10^25 or a thousand million quadrillions! That is why in the world of tiny particles, gravity is negligible. Another problem with gravity is that the Standard Model says nothing about it. But it is the force that keeps you anchored to the Earth, the force that keeps the planets tethered to the Sun, and the force that herds stars into galaxies and galaxies into clusters. Gravity, weak as it may be, is a force to be reckoned with.

Our best theory for gravity is Einstein’s General Relativity, which explains that gravity is the curvature of space and time. General Relativity has passed all experimental and observational tests with flying colors. It powerfully explains the behavior of the universe as a whole from its earliest stages up to the present. But it is not friends with the Standard Model, something that bothers physicists to no end. This is especially bothersome given that the origin of our universe, the moments approaching the Big Bang, is subject to both the laws of General Relativity and the Standard Model.

Another problem with the Standard Model is that it accounts for only 4% of the universe! As for the other 96%, it has nothing to say. In fact, the other 96% is so mysterious to us that we decided to simply call them “dark matter” and “dark energy,” which just goes to show that we know next to nothing about them, except that they exist. (IMHO, calling the other 96% “love” would have been apt.)

The universe pie.

 

The Search Goes On

Let us summarize what we have talked about. The Standard Model is our best theory about the composition of our universe. It tells us that the universe is composed of six leptons that can fly around freely (like electrons and neutrinos), six quarks that are always glued to other quarks (protons and neutrons are just quarks glued together), and force carriers that mediate the interactions between the other particles. But the Standard Model can only account for the mass of some of the particles if a particle known as the Higgs boson exists. If the particle detected last week was a Higgs boson, it would be a major triumph for the Standard Model.

However, it is apparent that the Standard Model cannot be the last say. It has its own problems, chief among these is that it cannot explain gravity, it is not compatible with our best theory explaining gravity, and it can account for only 4% of the universe. And so the search for the solution to the problem of existence has not ended. In fact, the discovery of the Higgs boson opens the door for more furious research; in other words, the search has only begun.

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